My North American adventure, part 1

Last April I saw a call for papers for the History of Science Society conference in Toronto. I decided to try my luck and send in an abstract – I’m an MA student but my research is pretty advanced – I figured that the worst that can happen is that I’ll get a ‘no’. It was just after all sorts of academics started posting their CV of failures online – detailing all the jobs and grants that they didn’t get, all of the papers they have written that have not been accepted. It made me realise that my fear of failure can only hold me back in academia, that in fact, in order to achieve anything I will need to try and try and try, and fail a lot, in order to succeed, and I thought that there was no better time to start than the present. I was very surprised when I received an email several months later congratulating me on the acceptance of my paper.

And so, I was going to Toronto, to a four-day conference, and it seemed a shame to travel all the way to North America without visiting my sister who lives in New Jersey, on a little street facing the famous skyline of New York. I spent five days in New Jersey, though it felt like more, and I had such a good time spending time with my niece and nephew, and with my sister and her life partner. Here are a few snippets that I wrote in those few days.

2.11

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It was a day flight, but all the shutters all over the plane were pulled down. I pulled mine up every once in a while to gaze at the tiny mountain tops and lakes below, blinking at the sun reflected by the clouds. Most of the flight I passed in the darkness, with the harsh yellow reading light above trained at my kindle screen, furiously reading the first volume of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust. I started reading in the line for the check-in, and finished after eight hours in the air. I read like I did when I was a child, in wild abandon, completely lost to the world. It is hard to put into words what it felt like to be back in Lyra’s Oxford, to come back to the world Pullman painted in His Dark Materials, the first book of which, Northern Lights, I read when I was 12, falling madly deeply in love with that world, and it, and its characters, have been a part of my life ever since.

4.11

Woke up this morning to a sliver of light peeping through the curtains, so that I knew right away that I had finally slept the night away, as dawn begins to break at seven. My eyelids felt heavy and painful with sleep, so I opened the bedside lamp and read a few pages on my kindle before going out of my room. In the living room, on the royal blue sofa, sat my niece and nephew, with wild bed-hair and glistening eyes, and watched an animated movie on the gigantic screen as the sky outside slowly turned a lighter and lighter blue. The atmosphere in the living room was slightly gloomy, but cosy at the same time. Two childish faces gazing at their own private wonderland in that dark, half bewitched hour, in which the skies slowly open, and the grownups are not yet awake. I never had that, since my mother was always up at six. Maybe that is why I curved out my own space at the witching hours, between 23 and 2 in the morning. Though my father was still awake, he remained in his study upstairs, and the rest of the house was mine, asleep, and bewitched, to read, watch Hallmark films (the magical king – Legend of the Leprechauns, Merlin, and so on, not the sickly-sweet dramas), and mess around on the internet, building my own website, and spending hours in book lovers’ forums.

I put the kettle on to boil and made myself a breakfast of a tortilla smeared with peanut butter and apricot jam, and a soft blueberry cereal bar stuck in the middle. I sprayed it with salt, and made a cup of spicy cinnamon tea, grabbed a banana, and sat down to eat and read. I am continuing a book I started on the plane, ‘Just One Damned Thing After Another’ by Jodi Taylor. The strong tea fortified and warmed me as the sun kept rising outside, and the blue skies started glowing at the edges with gold. I’m not sure what to think about this book, it is not especially good, but also not glaringly bad. It uses the same premise as Connie Willis’s – time travelling historians – but treats the subject in a completely different way. There is none of Willis’s depth of historical details or evidence of painstaking research, instead it is more of a series of episodic adventures.

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When I go to London I always visit Foyles, when in New York I’ve started forming a tradition of going to The Strand. The Strand is a beautiful and gigantic bookshop, that boasts having 18 miles of books. I was walking around this shop of wonders, the floor boards around me creaking with the steps of dozens of people. They sounded like a ship, screeching and cracking around me. I felt so soothed and curious, ensconced, with the floor creak-creak-creaking around me. I spent hours browsing books in the history, photography, fantasy & sci fi, and graphic novels sections, letting images and ideas wash over me and inspire me.

The graphic novels section was the biggest one I have ever seen in a bookshop, and had many tables on which specially recommended volumes were arranged. I read two books on the spot, and leafed through dozens of others, eventually choosing three to buy. It was a delicious experience.

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5.11

Woke up in the dark again. I like it. The jetlag is adding new timescapes to my life – the magical hours between four and seven in the morning on a quiet Sunday. Just me, and the computer, writing and writing and writing. Looking at the schedule of the upcoming conference and dreaming. Inhaling my pumpkin tea, luxuriating in finally wearing long sleeves and socks indoors, and looking at the bluing sky outside.

 

6.11

I could spend hours looking at maps, thinking. Reading place names, caressing rivers and lakes with my eyes, trying to imagine what lives are led there, what the atmosphere feels like, what are these hills and oceans dreaming of.

I am performing open heart surgery on my writing sample for the PhD applications. It is lying, dissected, spread-eagle on my screen, innards poking out in disarray. I am poking and prodding, rearranging organs and limbs, trying out different variations, until finally I connect all of the right veins and arteries to each other, and the paragraphs and chapters begin to pink with the healthy vibrance of a well-structured argument.

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Today I worked until noon, and then decided that being so near New York and only visiting once is heart breaking, so I threw on some clothes and caught the bus to Port Authority. I spent the afternoon in the Met, mostly in the Modern European section.

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Seeing paintings I know and love felt like meeting old friends, but I had one uncanny experience, when I walked into a room and a full length painting loomed before me like a ghost from my past. I realised that I bought a postcard depicting this painting 13 years ago, and it used to hang on the wall of my bedroom as a teenager. It was eerie and spooky and lovely.

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Walking home from the Met I was surrounded by squirrels. Silvery-grey ones, and small ashy-black ones. I saw two squirrels with short tails, which I found out a few months ago happens when a predator grabs hold of their tail – they can break it off, like a lizard, and leave the frustrated hunter with a useless piece of fluff in their mouth. Central Park was darkly and glossily green, with castles rising in the background, and orange leaves strewn on the ground between jutting brown-black boulders, and curling tree roots that looked like sleeping squirrels with red fruits in their mouths.

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As the bus left Port Authority in the direction of New Jersey I opened my laptop and starting working on my application materials again. I raised my head to see New York standing before me, black and blue and yellow, wet from the rain, full of whispering promises. I’ll be back.

Joanne

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street / Natasha Pulley

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Yes, yes, I know – I have been a terrible blogger. All my dreams and plans of documenting my amazing research trip in real time so as to save all of my impressions for posterity, and giving you all a little window into the life of a beginning researcher, went out of the window once I actually landed in England and became so preoccupied with my day-to-day reality there. The trip was amazing, and I am still harbouring a little hope that I will recap it in a couple of photo-heavy posts in the near future (just as soon as I finish this really stressful deadline-filled stretch of time that I’m currently in). In the meanwhile, here’s a little book review on the last book I’ve read.

From the description I was sure, for some reason, that this was a detective mystery book, so I was a bit surprised when it veered off in other directions. At first I was completely drawn into the world of this book. It had a Sherlock-y vibe – slightly dusted with charcoal, Victorian, taking place in Scotland Yard. The ‘feeling’ of the book – its setting, atmosphere, details, ideas, and language, are its best qualities. Its worst qualities? the narrative, which was overly twisted, and its internal logic. I am completely willing to suspend disbelief and delve into a world that works according to different natural laws, I only ask that it will be consistent and logical (the king of this sort of thing is Brandon Sanderson, who takes after the legacy of world-builders such as Tolkien). Here I felt that there was no such logic with the special powers of one of the characters who can “see” the future. I did like the inventiveness of Pulley, who based the science in her book on the Victorian notions of physics, and among them the idea of ‘aether’ an element that supposedly permeated all the spaces in the world. and was responsible for gravity and the travelling of light. I also liked the descriptions of Mori’s clockwork shop – cosy and whimsical, a combination of the British and the Japanese, it was one of the highlights of the book. One last thing I highly disliked was the way that Grace’s character developed; I really liked her at first since it is a tendency of mine to adore female scientist characters, especially in historical novels, but she quickly devolved into a weak and annoying character.

L. J. G.

P.S. – am I the only one who was really shipping Mori and Thaniel? At one point I was sure the writer was hinting at that as well, but I’m not sure if I imagined it